New Zealand goalkeeper Victoria Esson is coming off a roller-coaster season with her club, Rangers, and hopes her big-game experience with the Scottish giants will provide useful preparation for the cauldron of a FIFA Women’s World Cup on home soil.
Esson says it might be hard to imagine for most Kiwi sports fans what spectacle they can expect when one of the largest sports events on the planet kicks off at Eden Park on July 20.
“The big difference is the noise. The first time I played in front of a big crowd, it was a strange realisation that nobody could hear me,” explained the 32-year-old from Christchurch.
“Using your voice is really important as a goalkeeper, because it’s our job to organise things in the back, and I just used to yell. But I had to learn use my hands to communicate to let others know if you want the ball or not,” says Esson, who added that these new skills also proved valuable when dealing with a Scottish backline.
“Early in the season, I wanted someone to head the ball back to me to catch and yelled “Head home” and she looked really confused and just booted it away, because they thought I was yelling “Hit home”. When it happened again a few minutes later, I realised they couldn’t understand my Kiwi English, so I needed to adjust and use my hands.”
Noisy crowds and high standards
Esson has just finished an exciting season with Rangers, as Glasgow became another city in Europe to catch the contagious fever of top women’s football, with crowds of over 10,000 passionate fans often packing into the legendary stadiums of Rangers and Celtic as the country’s big two fought out a dramatic title battle with Glasgow City.
The three-way race was only decided late on the final matchday when Meikayla Moore’s Glasgow City pipped Esson’s Rangers 1-0 to hold onto top spot and also deny Celtic. Liv Chance’s club had one hand on the title until an injury time City goal broke both Celtic and Rangers hearts.
“It’s amazing playing in front of crowds like that. When we played Champions League against Benfica, about 200-300 of the Rangers supporters group called the Union Bears came along with their drums, bag pipes and other instruments and were chanting non-stop.
“They were sitting right behind my goal and I literally couldn’t hear anything else. And that was only a few hundred, so imagine when a whole stadium is filled with non-stop noise for the entire game,” smiles Esson.
“It’s totally different from what we are used to in New Zealand, where you can hear rugby teams calling a lineout in a full stadium. That just wouldn’t be possibly with a football crowd. You just wouldn’t hear the call.”
Since arriving at Rangers, Esson has been enjoying the support, scale and facilities this giant of Scottish football is offering both the men’s and women’s team. Esson explains that the staffing levels around the team are significantly bigger at Rangers than her previous clubs in Norway and Germany, where only the women’s teams played at an elite level.
“We have around 12 staff for the women’s side alone and we share the facilities with the men’s team at the Rangers Training Centre. It’s a nice traditional building and the men have their own pitches, and the women share four grass pitches and one artificial turf with the Academy which is pretty cool.”
Esson is a relatively latecomer to goalkeeping, as well as professional football, signing her first contract at the age of 27, but six seasons in top divisions in Norway, Germany and now Scotland, have catapulted her into the No1 jersey for New Zealand and a leadership role in the squad.
“I am a bit older I guess, so hope I can help the younger players by showing calmness that you gain by experience, because many in the team will not have felt the kind of pressure we will be dealing with, “ says Esson, who points out that because New Zealand automatically qualified as World Cup hosts, the Football Ferns played their last competitive match at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
“The pressure in matches where the result really matters is quite different. In the qualifying rounds of the Champions League with Rangers every game for us was a knock-out match, with potential extra time and penalties, with huge stakes, so many of our Ferns team will not have been exposed to that.”
Esson says Football Ferns coach Jitka Klimková and her team are working hard to prepare the team for the pressure and occasion, but on the pitch the experienced professionals in the squad will have to guide the younger talents in the team.
“This is what players who play for bigger club in the bigger leagues can bring back to the younger players who haven’t really felt that type of pressure.
“Everyone reacts to the pressure differently and I hope we can show calmness amid the chaos, because it’s going to be a cauldron and easy to get distracted, especially in the opening match with the home crowd when there will be so much going on,” says Esson.
The former Canterbury Pride goalkeeper says that the home-series against South Korea in Christchurch was a perfect reminder for herself how hard it can be to stay focused.
“Christchurch was a great test for me as it was the first time I played with the Ferns in my home town. You see all your family and friends who you want to catch up with, but at the end of the day you’re there to do your job and perform, so you need to find the balance between enjoying the occasion and staying focused.”
A unique opportunity
As the opening match on July 20 is getting closer, Esson has been reflecting on how the Women’s World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both players and the New Zealand fans.
“The more I think about it, I realise what an incredible opportunity it is to host such a big tournament in our country, which is pretty small compared to a lot of other countries who would like to host it,” she said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for New Zealand to put itself on the map from an international football perspective and a sports perspective, but also a chance to see some phenomenal football.
“Hopefully, we will see some local players shine and the best players from players England, America, Spain and around the world.
“Women’s football is the fastest-growing sport in the world and you only have to look at the crowds the European teams are getting. Who would have thought only a few years ago that we would get 70, 80, 90,000 people watching a women’s club game? That’s twice Eden Park!”
Esson encourages sports fans to “jump right in and test the water” to see what women’s football has to offer.
“It’s not a case of competing with rugby or hockey — we just want New Zealand to support and enjoy great sport. I am so grateful to be part of this sport at such an exciting time and, for the younger generations, it will only get bigger.”
Acknowledgement: Story supplied by FIFA.